Miniature limousines. The BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class have long been simply tagged as large luxury sedans, but times are a-changing in this class.
Despite being mere middle-tier model grades, the 530i and E300 are now available with technology and luxury items reserved for the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class only a few years ago. Yes, even these circa-$110,000 petrol four-cylinder versions can now provide more than a glimpse of the limo, not mere luxury, lifestyle.
BMW claims its all-new 530i will be the popular pick among its range, while Mercedes-Benz lines the E300 up near-identically on price. What we have here, then, are the popular picks within utterly dominant 5 Series and E-Class lineups that this year (from January to June) have snared around 75 per cent of segment volume.
It’s popularity within popularity. Oh, and other rivals? What other rivals?
BMW 530i ($108,900 plus on-road costs)
Mercedes-Benz E300 ($107,900 plus on-road costs)
At $107,900 plus on-road costs the Mercedes-Benz E300 starts $1000 below the BMW 530i. It isn’t nearly as well-equipped for the price, however. Both get leather, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, keyless auto-entry, dual-zone climate, widescreen displays with navigation, plus a suite of active safety equipment: active cruise control, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, lane-keep assistance and LED headlights with adaptive-automatic high beam.
The 530i gets 19-inch alloy wheels versus its rival’s 20s, and Apple CarPlay is a $623 option – it’s standard in the Benz, although in the BMW it can exclusively be used wirelessly. Luxury Line or M Sport kits are no-cost options for the 530i, with both receiving 600-watt Harman Kardon audio and a head-up display. The Lux-Line tested here, meanwhile, uniquely gets Nappa leather trim and ventilated front seats.
The E300 packages a panoramic sunroof with should-be-standard 590-watt Burmester audio and head-up display for $4900 extra. Ventilated and massaging front and heated rear seats, plus three-zone climate, are packaged for $6900 extra; and meanwhile Nappa leather and dash stitching combine for $1900. Wireless phone charging adds $350 also. The total for this plushness is a lush $122,040 (plus orc).
Level-up the Benz’s limousine-like equipment in the BMW, and 20s ($950), a sunroof ($2900), rear seat heating ($700), quad-zone climate ($900), and massage front seats ($1800) all tallies up to $116,773 (plus orc) – leaving it around $5200 cheaper and securing an early value win.
There’s no need to look at the specification sheets of these sedans to pick which is roomier inside. The BMW rides on a 36mm-longer wheelbase than its rival, while being 16mm wider and with a body that stretches 13mm further from tip-to-toe.
Slipping into the driver’s seat of the 530i Luxury Line is like sinking into a favourite pair of Ugg boots on a cold winter’s night. The Nappa leather is high-quality and the broad seat treads a near-ideal line between plush comfort and driving support.
Richly padded door armrests, a stitched-faux-leather dashboard, and soft-touch surfaces that extend to the lower parts of the cabin, all endow the Munich sedan with a depth of luxury beyond the flashy façade of colour widescreens and woodgrain.
At first glance the E300’s sweeping dashboard makes its rival look plain, but its surfaces aren’t quite as consistently premium and the driver’s vertical door-pull on our test car squeaked when closed. The door-pull itself is also made of hard plastic, with a thin layer of leather coating it. It looks like, but doesn’t feel like, an S-Class.
Our test car didn’t feature Nappa leather or a stitched dashboard, either, and the standard leather coating the thinner and less supportive front seats all paled against the indulgence that comes as standard on its rival.
And yet BMW simplicity trumps Benz extravagance in terms of usability. The 5 Series has fewer buttons and dials across the dash, but its iDrive rotary controller works brilliantly and the colour driver cluster only really deals with trip computer information.
Given the 530i’s value equation is about $5000 ahead of its rival’s, it also leaves money to spare to further improve its available technology via a $1600 Innovations Package. It incorporates automatic reverse parking via a colour remote key from outside the vehicle, and gesture control to swirl your finger mid-air in the cabin to accept or decline phone calls, or wick up the volume – both unavailable on the Benz.
Time breeds familiarity with the E-Class, but even then its Comand rotary controller is covered by an arched-over touchpad that obscures other buttons flanking it; and yet there are still separate shortcut buttons (for radio/nav/media) on the centre stack that leaves a driver toiling all across the dashboard to perform simple functions.
The touch-sensitive controls on the steering wheel are likewise a bit sensitive, and they double-up functions in the driver cluster that already feature in the main screen.
Both sedans’ voice control systems work as ideally as can be found, with both accepting simple ‘one shot’ commands for nav, phone and audio. But only the BMW offers wireless phone charging and speed-sign detection and readout as standard, while its (standard) Harman Kardon audio system bests its rival’s loud but muddy (optional) Burmester unit.
Further rearward and the Benz genuinely feels a half-size smaller than its newer rival here. The back seat base is very short, reducing under-thigh support, while toe space is limited and headroom is affected by the panoramic roof. Quite simply, space and comfort are adequate for the size, but no more.
The 530i’s back-seat base is heavily tilted, deep and plush. Outright legroom is similar, but there’s greater width and a more all-encompassing feel for rear riders. With boot space being near-identical – the E300’s 540 litres beating its foe by 10L – it leaves only one car here to make the leap between large car and mini-limo inside.
ON THE ROAD
A challenge for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz is convincing buyers that a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine is worth spending $110,000 and beyond for in a large car. And following this drive, we think it might not be.
Both engines can be purchased in each company’s smaller 3 Series and C-Class model grades for $70,000 (plus orc), so stepping up one size of sedan and asking another 50 per cent of that purchase price seems a tough ask. In previous eras a similar engine would also start in sub-$100K 5 Series and E-Class models.
BMW leads with 185kW of power from 5200rpm until 6500rpm, and 350Nm of torque between 1450rpm and 4800rpm.
Benz delivers 180kW at 5500rpm and a healthier 370Nm from 1300rpm until 4000rpm. However, its 1655kg kerb weight also leaves it a decent 115kg heavier.
Both are rear-wheel driven, of course, but the 530i’s eight-speed automatic is also quicker and slicker than the still-excellent nine-speed unit in its rival. The E300 jumps off the line thanks to a short first gear, and it claims identical 6.2-second 0-100km/h performance. But it’s also louder, it sounds grainy and doesn’t feel as quick to rev.
The newer Bavarian German feels lighter on its feet through corners, with absolutely fantastic chassis dynamics, leading with a superbly sharp front-end, impeccable balance and good thrust from the rear on exit – even using just four cylinders.
The greater surprise is that the E-Class is not merely a C-Class through corners.
Despite looking similar, it’s built on a newer platform that delivers a higher standard of handling than its smaller sibling. No longer can it simply be said that the BMW is the driver’s sedan, and the Benz trades fun in the bends for comfort. What the E300 delivers is unflappable and engaging grip and agility, if not a naturally gifted fleet-of-foot feel and its rival’s sports-focused electronic stability control (ESC) programming.
Both our test cars came equipped with 30-aspect 20-inch tyres, but only one of them successfully delivered superb ride quality in all conditions. Perhaps of course, that vehicle is the Benz. Its Airmatic air suspension is virtually flawless, hiding the effects of low-profile rubber while being subtly nuanced between Comfort and Sport.
Indeed, with immaculately progressive steering, and teamed with its smaller size, the E-Class feels far more nimble, controlled and soothing around town – a clean-sweep that sparks the most sizeable divide between the two rivals of the whole contest.
BMW’s adaptive suspension can feel wallowy around town, rocking occupants over speed humps and undulations where its rival keeps its sedan body perfectly flat. Yet there’s still an underlying jitteriness on low-profile tyres. The 530i’s Comfort, Adaptive (which apparently reads the road) and Sport modes seem more like slight compromises than subtle differentiations of the one high standard, as per the E300.
Yet the steering absolutely needs to be in Sport mode to fill the vacant gap on the centre position which is noticeable in Comfort mode. Thankfully it’s possible to mix-and-match modes, but it’s a case of mode-overload while still being far from perfect.
On the road, this comes right down to the wire.
It’s a dead-heat for active safety technology, however – both active cruise controls work well, and we found lane-keep assist works better in the Benz than the BMW; but the latter company’s singularly also works at night. At dusk, the sparkling LED headlights and brilliant auto high-beam of both can also be well appreciated.
The BMW 530i delivers a curious mix of abilities. It offers the roomiest and plushest cabin with the most equipment, and the best drivetrain and outright dynamics; but without the immaculate ride quality of a 7 Series (or E-Class or S-Class).
The Mercedes-Benz E300 delivers utterly astounding ride quality on its 20-inch tyres, teamed with deeply impressive handling and while still being competitive in other areas. Particularly if this sedan is driven around town without rear passengers, it’s actually the pick here. Value-aside, to drive it’s very much the all-rounder of the pair.
But, genuinely, neither the 530i or E300 would be our pick. Instead, a 620Nm six-cylinder diesel 530d would be, priced from $119,900 (plus orc). Surely the $11,000 spend to an intensely torquey, quicker and thriftier inline-six diesel is worth it, while adding all that indulgent equipment we talked about would still only take it to $127,973 (plus orc). For $130K, this has to be the best mini-limousine available in the world.
Oh, and the Benz also gives up a win to the BMW because its also-620Nm V6 diesel equivalent, the E350d, starts at $134,900 (plus orc). It then still needs $8800 in options to match its rival for kit. And that only further cements a 5 Series win here.
BMW 530i – 4.0 stars
Mercedes-Benz E300 – 3.5 stars